CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- No doubt, you see the homeless when you drive by Covenant House or other parts of the community from Kanawha City, the East End, Slack Street and the Patrick Street Bridge. Many homeless sleep on or nearby our campus. Most mornings I see Wesley, Chuck, Ernie, Brenda, Tim and many others.
Not a day goes by that I do not ask myself, "Are we doing enough?" The rural homeless are invisible. A portion of our society is collapsing in front our very eyes. It is systemic -- the situation is critical and worsening.
We encounter new faces every day at Covenant House, over 100 per month. On some days, over 200 homeless and working poor walk through our doors. Because of the growing number of homeless persons sleeping near the Covenant House campus, some familiar faces and many new, we thought it appropriate to initiate a community dialog about why we continue to see so many people without a place to lay their head at night.
The single mother of three who is homeless because she fled violence in her own home. The 15-year-old disowned by his family because he just came out as gay. These are more than stories; they are the people we work with every day, people struggling to survive in our community, living on the streets.
The truth is the underlying causes of homelessness are far too complex and multifaceted to be solved by housing alone. Some of the non-housing needs of homeless families are addressed through mainstream benefits and poverty programs, but many of these services do not reach the majority of eligible homeless families. Currently, homeless persons enroll at surprisingly low rates in some of the largest programs. For example, only 9.6 percent of all homeless adults exiting transitional housing, permanent or supportive housing, rental assistance, and other non-emergency programs participate in TANF and only 19.5 percent in Social Security's Supplemental Security Income or Disability Insurance. Twenty-five percent have no financial resources at all.
Rural homelessness, essentially invisible, is devastating West Virginia families. Consider Barbara, a grandmother living in a rural, southern West Virginia county. In addition to being HIV positive, she has multiple health problems that in recent months have required several visits to Charleston for extended hospital stays. She is able to get by month-to-month on a $710 SSI check and food stamps. She struggles with an adult daughter who has a drug problem and often asks to stay with Barbara.
Barbara is torn between her love for her daughter and two granddaughters and not wanting to enable her daughter's drug habit. During her most recent extended hospitalization, Barbara allowed her daughter and family to stay in her home, in exchange for the daughter paying the utility bills. However, when Barbara returned from nearly three months of hospital stays, she found the house empty, her electricity cut off, and a bill of over $700 that had to be paid before her service could be reconnected. Her medical conditions, which include a need for an oxygen supply, absolutely require that her electricity stay connected. Our days are replete with similar tragedies.
Covenant House staff was able to pay a portion of Barbara's electric bill and found other agencies to pay the balance. They also walked her through the process of getting a "medical necessity" approval from AEP so that her utility would not be cut off in the future. Perhaps most importantly, they were able to simply be with and listen to Barbara. A month out from returning home, Barbara still has not heard from her daughter and worries how her granddaughters are doing.
The systemic and individual-level causes of family homelessness include housing costs, mental illness, substance abuse, racial discrimination, poor health, barriers to access to care, generational poverty, sexual orientation and identity and domestic violence. As we examine these realities, it is our responsibility to better understand our own capacity to respond to and develop alternate strategies to connect our most vulnerable citizens with benefits and ultimately housing.
Allen is executive director of Covenant House.